Sacred Heart teacher sows valuable lessons overseeing school’s service garden

When the call went out two years ago for volunteers to start a service garden on the grounds at Lombard’s Sacred Heart School, Anna Pagdin was reluctant.

Having struggled in the past to keep a cactus alive, the fifth grade teacher could not imagine anyone less equipped for the job.

Anna Pagdin, a fifth grade teacher at Sacred Heart School in Lombard, has helped start a student garden at the school.

“Two weeks pass by and nobody responds,” Pagdin said. “So I emailed the principal and said, ‘I can try, I guess, but if any other teachers want to do it, by all means, they can.’ ”

No such luck for Pagdin. But she doesn’t mind one bit, she said. The garden has become a learning opportunity for both her and her students.

Anna Pagdin, a fifth grade teacher at Sacred Heart School in Lombard, has helped start a student garden at the school.

“They love the fact that Mrs. Pagdin had no clue what she was doing,” Pagdin said. “I had all the students write a research paper on the vegetables that grow well in Illinois. I told them to pick one and teach me about it – what it is, how to grow it, how it benefits you – because I don’t know how to keep these alive.”

For Pagdin, the project is an extension of her hands-on, experiential learning style.

“And it shows the students that we’re all human and Mrs. Pagdin needs help learning things, too,” she said.

Anna Pagdin, a fifth grade teacher at Sacred Heart School in Lombard, has helped start a student garden at the school.

A graduate of Sacred Heart School, Pagdin grew up with her share of academic struggles.

“I was not what one would call a star student,” she said. “To be 100% honest, I was in detention every Thursday after school. I have ADD that didn’t get diagnosed until I was in high school. And it was a struggle overcoming the fact that I was the one in my class who couldn’t figure things out as easily.”

After graduating college, Pagdin taught for two years in the public school system before landing at Sacred Heart.

“It felt like God was calling me back here,” she said. “I know how special the school is, and I just love talking about my faith and being able to share it with my kids. This really wasn’t as much of a choice as a calling.”

Since launching the service garden, Pagdin’s knowledge has grown considerably thanks to her students.

“They find it so fascinating and interesting,” she said. “They’re telling me how there are female flowers and male flowers, or that carrots need to be in sandy soil to grow really well. I’ve never seen a more authentic way to get kids to learn. They absolutely love it.”

Some of the vegetables grown in the garden are beets, pumpkins, sweet corn, zucchini and sweet peppers.

Fellow teacher Kelsey Bradt said the garden started out as a simple service project, “but turned into much more.”

“Mrs. Pagdin had our middle school students working on their math skills by mapping out how the garden should be laid out,” Bradt said. “They made grids and measured to be sure each plant would have enough room to grow. She also incorporated science into the service garden by having students research the seeds they wanted to grow. They found out what their chosen seed needed to grow, when it should be planted, how much water to give it, etc.”

The students were able to hone their writing skills by completing a report about their seeds, and during social studies class, they learned about food deserts and communities in need.

Bradt said the latter has shown Sacred Heart pupils the importance of helping those in need.

“Our students pick the fruits and vegetables and donate the fresh food to our local St. Vincent de Paul,” she said. “To help get parents involved, Mrs. Pagdin set up a schedule during the summer so parents could volunteer to tend to the garden. She is very passionate about this project and is able to spread her passion throughout the whole school. The service garden has been a really important learning tool here at Sacred Heart and it is all possible because of Mrs. Pagdin.”

Pagdin said it takes a village.

“And I think we have a really special village here. The principal gives us the freedom to do what matters alongside the academics,” Pagdin said. “When opportunities come up in the community we don’t have to stick to this rigid curriculum. We know there are food deserts right here in our community and it’s important for the kids to know more about the world in which they live and ask, ‘How can we help?’ ”

Pagdin is grateful she was given the opportunity to take on the garden project.

“The principal got this idea started,” she said. “And I don’t know how many principals would say, ‘You want to run with it but you don’t know what you’re doing? That’s OK. Keep going.’ ”